Keep Your Startup Out Of The Sand

An Article for Startups and Product Based Ventures

Hey, That’s My Idea !!

Potential Sand Trap #1 — INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY.

You have the great new idea, so hey, you gotta protect it. Gotta make sure no one steals it. Right?

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Have you ever gone through the patenting process? Patents are a big cloud of mysterious allure. They’re cool, for sure, and they certainly have their important place, but don’t get sucked into thinking you must have a patent. They are not the solution to everything — and they can be a huge consumer of resources.

Definition of Entrepreneurial Sand Trap: Anything that consumes resources disproportionately.

A Patent Is A Tool:

I’ve seen many precious resources of early entrepreneurs wasted on patents. Why would I say wasted? Let’s look at what it really is. A patent is a tool, used to assist in IP protection. How? Blatantly put, it gives you the right to take legal action.

Here’s the problem: the government won’t protect your idea. They’ll only help you enforce it, after you get a judgement, and that can be really expensive.

Patents cost a lot of money to get, and the only thing they do (most of the time) is allow you to spend even more money enforcing them. This is why we say a patent is only as good as your pockets are deep.

One other way patents can become a sand pit: Starting the process too early. In many cases, as you develop your product, the concepts mature and change, and you don’t want to repeat that time and expense again so the “revised” or “added” features of your original idea can be protected.

Please don’t misunderstand, I’m not at all against patents. I have many of them myself. But that’s not the point. The point is to use them as an appropriate tool, at the right time.

What Other Tools Are There?

Well, I still have to protect my idea. What else can I do?

I invite you to explore the following possibilities.  Talk with your patent attorney about how they may apply in your situation.  They can be less expensive, less time-consuming, and can often buy you time or satisfy the need entirely:

  1. Provisional patents — give you a year to mature your ideas.
  2. Design patents — much less expensive — do a different thing.
  3. Non-disclosure agreements — see below.
  4. Trademarks, Copyrights — depending on your need.
  5. Trade secrets — depending on how your IP is involved in your product.
Non-disclosure Agreements:

These are somewhat misunderstood. In essence, it is a promise to respect each others contributions to something new. Of course, this is generalized. In my experience you have to share info about your product as you move through development. You can’t do it all yourself. Anyone you would actually want to talk to about your product is not in the business of stealing ideas, or they wouldn’t be in business very long. Use a Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA) as a formal way of saying “Hey, this is my idea.”

Secondly, I assert that the actual wording of the NDA is not so important.  Every attorney has their own NDA, and somehow every one of them is better than the others.  Don’t let your attorney charge you a ton for one of these.  You can consider special allowances for your situation if you want, but if you choose your vendors and associations well, you’ll never need to enforce it.  Use one, for sure, but don’t let the NDA become a sand trap.

Avoiding the Sand Trap:

As you move forward, get direction from those who have been there. Find the right attorney to consult with, and challenge their recommendations (to see if they are really right for you).

Most of all, trust people. Choose your resources carefully, use an NDA, then trust them and keep moving. If you find that IP starts consuming too many resources (money, time, worry, etc.) back off and re-evaluate. Don’t get stuck.

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